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Vocabulary Tips for the SAT Literature Subject Test

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Sentence Completion questions are one of the most frustrating aspects of the SAT Reading section. Even a student with an above-average vocabulary can struggle with the numerous outdated words. The College Board’s affinity for archaic vocabulary manifests itself in a different way on the SAT Literature Subject Test. Many of the selections for this hour-long exam are taken from works that were written before the nineteenth century. They frequently contain words that are either no longer in use or have evolved entirely different meanings since the selections were written. How, exactly, are students expected to know the meanings of these words when the English language has changed so much since then? To answer that question, we’re going to offer three strategies for figuring out the meanings of obscure words on the SAT Literature Test.


Consider the Context

This one comes straight from the SAT Reading section. Some of the Passage-Based Reading questions ask students to define the meaning of a word “in context.” This means that you must consider how the author of a passage is using a word, not what the word literally means. You can apply the same techniques you would use to answer this type of Reading question to unknown words on the Literature Test. These include (but are not limited to):

  • Seeing if a word is defined outright, either in the same sentence or elsewhere in the selection.
  • Looking for a specific example of the type of person, place, or thing that the word refers to.
  • Checking if the concept behind a word is restated in a way that you do understand or that makes its meaning clearer.
  • Watching for comparisons and contrasts that help illustrate the meaning of a word.
  • Hunting for synonyms of a word.
  • Keeping an eye out for details that refer back to a word (and expand on its meaning in the process).


Use Morphemes

In previous lessons we’ve talked about how to use morphemes, the smallest parts of words, to tease out the meanings of unknown Sentence Completion words. This technique works equally well on the Literature Test. Break words into their roots, prefixes, and suffixes Consider what each part of the word means by itself, then try to put these meanings back together.


Make Inferences

Draw conclusions about the meanings of words that you do not know based on the meanings of words and/or concepts that you do know. See if you can figure out the meaning of “aggregate” from other information in the following example:


The teacher failed to consider the aggregate effect of her new policies on the grades and morale of her students. She didn’t think that a greater volume of homework, a stricter attendance policy, more difficult tests, and shorter deadlines were particularly unreasonable demands on their own.


We can infer from this example that the teacher assessed the effect of each of her new policies one at a time. She didn’t take into account how they could build on one another to create a much more difficult experience for her students. Therefore, we can conclude that “aggregate” means the “sum total” of several different things.


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